When you’ve been living in Southeast Asia for a while, you tend to forget that Brits, Europeans and even North Americans happily fly for fifteen or more hours for the indulgence of a week or two at a five-star Indonesian island resort. For them, such an unspoilt and exotic location is well worth the time and money.
We need to be reminded regularly how lucky we are that a 55-minute ferry ride from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal (near Changi Airport) – about $60 return – takes us to the Riau Archipelago island of Bintan. There are at least eight resorts to choose from, and a number of new ones in the offing. But it’s the Banyan Tree that tops the list.
As you step off the boat and into the terminal on Bintan, a beaming hotel representative will be brandishing a board with your name on it. Fifteen minutes or so later, you will be delivered to your resort lobby from the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel car.
We have previously stayed in the standard villas, and they’re lovely, but they don’t compare with the two-bedroomed pool villas. To get the iconic Bintan Banyan Tree experience, I suggest you team up with another couple and share one. You have the utmost privacy in one of the two identical huge bedrooms with shower, alfresco sunken bath and double vanity area, and can meet up in the shared area’s bale, loungers, full-sized infinity pool, and whirlpool spa bath.
Stepping through the door of your pool villa into this private outdoor living area with its stupendous view of the South China Sea can be an overwhelming experience.
When we took family there for a special treat a couple of years ago, my sister-in-law shed a tear when she saw the glorious view. And when we returned last month as a treat for Wendy, our jet-setting and fairly worldly daughter, even she was wowed.
Just one of a raft of heavenly spa treatments, the Rainmist experience has its own dedicated venue, Villa 208 to be exact. After an excellent footbath – which, as Wendy said sotto voce, boded well for the treatment ahead – we were led to two adjoining rooms: the first a wet room, the other one dry, reminiscent of the traditional Southeast Asian kitchen’s wet and dry areas.
On side-by-side beds in the wet room, we were gently steamed for ten minutes, then rubbed with a scintillatingly fresh orange and yoghurt scrub, after which our therapists swung two six-foot overhead rods into position above us. Each rod had five rainshower-heads along its length, which played on our supine bodies for a while – but not for long enough. (That said, all day would not have been long enough.) Back in the dry spa, with its wonderful view of greenery and sea, a firm, strong Balinese massage completed the experience.
Even apart from the fantastic facilities and beautiful setting, do not think that you will get a massage this good at a lesser establishment. At US$130 for the two-hour treat, it’s well worth it.
Another highlight of this resort is the opportunity for a one-on-one yoga session with the in-house yogi, Dr Ashish Kumar. He has a passion for his calling, and an hour with him was as educational as it was inspirational.
Only one couple per night gets to experience the delights of each destination dining experience. Dinner on the Rocks serves you in splendour at a formal table for two in the middle of a large, flat rock that juts into the sea from the beach; Dinner at 8 takes place on the spectacular eighth tee of the links golf course; and Dinner of the Legend, which the three of us did, is served right on the beach.
Our table was laid in the privacy of a square bamboo frame with white muslin-hung sides, but open to the stars. There was sand between our toes, and exotic torches flickered in the corners. Our charming butler served a magnificent Indonesian meal, keeping at a discreet distance in the dark, and magically appearing within seconds of us ringing a little bell. Wendy thought the bell a bit imperious, at first, but she did get used to it.
It almost goes without saying that all the staff, being mainly Indonesian, are tremendously courteous and welcoming. And this being the Banyan Tree, they’re also top-notch and absolutely professional. They’re headed up by Andrew Langston, the new area general manager.
You can’t destination-dine every night, of course. Other options include the fine-dining Saffron, Mediterranean fare at the Cove, and all-day indoor or alfresco dining at the lovely Treetops restaurant, which puts on an excellent breakfast buffet. You can also be served in your pool villa, which has a nifty pantry with all the essentials. They’ll even prepare a little barbecue for you.
If all you want to do is relax, you’ll hardly need to leave your pool villa. But if you’re feeling energetic, you can go yachting, water-skiing or jet-skiing; hire quad-bikes to explore the surrounding coconut groves and the beach beyond the headland, where a million-strong wave of hermit crabs sink beneath the sand at your approach; take a guided boat-ride through an amazing mangrove forest; play a round of golf at the neighbouring Laguna Bintan course; or explore the authentic Indonesia of the hinterland.
Isn’t it time you popped along to say hello to the neighbours? They are such friendly people!
The Banyan Tree group takes conservation seriously, be it here on Bintan or at any of its other locations in Bahrain, The Maldives, The Seychelles, Thailand and China. Its stated mission is to enhance ecosystem services for tourism and the community through sound conservation practices, a goal that is supported by its Green Initiative Fund.
Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world, with more than 17,000 islands. Bintan is just one of them. It’s twice the size of Singapore, with a population of only half a million.
According to the manager of the resort’s conservation laboratory, Indonesia has the world’s most diverse coral and fish populations, surpassing even those of the Great Barrier Reef or the Caribbean. It’s also home to three varieties of turtle.
It’s fun to go snorkelling for a couple of hours. You can’t be assured of good visibility, though, especially in the monsoon season, when it can drop to less than three metres.
On land, characteristic flora includes the towering meranti tree and the carnivorous pitcher plant. Pangolin and mousedeer are numbered among the rare and endangered animal species.
Next door to the Banyan Tree, and sharing its wonderful beach, is the five-star Angsana Resort & Spa. The Angsana hotels are part of the Banyan Tree group, but less expensive and geared to youngsters and families.
For reservations, call 6849 5800 or visit www.banyantree.com, or www.angsana.com. The rack rate at the Banyan Tree starts at US$490++ per villa per night, but you might get a better deal by trawling the internet. To book passage on the ferry, which does the return trip between five and seven times a day, visit www.brf.com.sg.
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